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Opinion: Haven't solved teen pregnancy yet

Photo Credit: TMS illustration by Mark Weber/

Last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention released its newest estimates of teen birthrates. The news is good. Within the past two decades, births among girls between the ages of 15 and 19 have steadily declined -- down 9 percent from 2009 to 2010 alone -- resulting in the lowest national teen birthrate ever recorded by the CDC. The national average is now 34 births per 1,000 women in this age group, down from the most recent peak of 62 in 1991.

The data also demonstrate that almost every state experienced a significant drop, and that birthrates declined for teens of all races and ethnicities.

But for those of us who have long known that teens who give birth are consigning themselves in most instances to low educational attainment and a life of poverty, it's much too early to break out the Champagne. Careful examination of the CDC data -- especially state by state -- shows that the numbers of teen pregnancies are discouragingly higher among Latinas and blacks.

Teen birthrates are still highest in the South and Southwest, and among blacks, Latinas and American Indians. In New York City, the most recent data on teen births, compiled in 2009 by the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, demonstrate the same kinds of trends. Yes, teen birthrates have declined overall, but disparities by ethnicity, neighborhood and economic status remain prevalent. Latina teens reported the highest birthrates, followed closely by African-American teens.

The South Bronx, one of the nation's poorest neighborhoods -- and just a quick subway ride from one of the richest, the Upper East Side -- has the city's highest rate, at 51 births per 1,000 teen girls, compared with 24 per 1,000 for the citywide average.

Statewide, the teen birthrate in 2009 was 22 per 1,000, representing one of the lowest in the country. There were even lower rates for the New York City suburbs. At 13, 16 and 17 per 1,000 respectively, Nassau, Westchester and Suffolk counties have some of the lowest birthrates in the state.

But in the suburbs, just as elsewhere across the country, teens from poor neighborhoods are nearly four times as likely as those in middle- or high-income communities to give birth in adolescence. Early pregnancy and motherhood are among the leading reasons that American girls drop out of high school. Dropouts, in turn, contribute to lifelong disparities in health and wealth for both the mother and child. It's no surprise, then, that the CDC has ranked teen pregnancy among its top six public-health priorities and has promoted new pregnancy prevention programs across the nation.

The CDC's commentary on the new national numbers points out that teens are using birth control more effectively and more often, resulting in fewer unwanted pregnancies and fewer births. The evidence of higher contraception use is also reflected in data on abortion: Nationwide, abortions among teens have been steadily decreasing over the last few decades.

While we can all be proud of the consistent decrease in births to teen mothers across the board, the data demonstrate where the hardest work still needs to be done. Overall, disparities based on ethnicity and wealth hold steady, indicating that the CDC's "winnable battle" against teenage pregnancy cannot be won until equal attention is paid to preventing pregnancy in all communities.

Although we have the strongest evidence yet of the benefits of supporting teens' ability to obtain birth control and quality health information, funding for programs that support young people's reproductive health is being scaled back and threatened at local, state and federal levels. Fifteen school-based health centers across the state, including one in Suffolk County, were forced to close in 2011 due to funding cuts, affecting thousands of young people who need services. It's not the time to turn our backs on our most vulnerable youth. Reducing births to teens not only cuts the number of children born into poverty, it also promotes the development of our nation's strongest assets: healthy and happy young people.

Vincent Guilamo-Ramos is a professor at New York University's Silver School of Social Work and co-director of the Center for Latino Adolescent and Family Health, where Molly Skinner-Day is a research scientist.